ON THE morning Adam died, I sent an e-mail to some friends to tell them. I also wrote, “Now I treasure my beautiful memories.” Since writing these words, I started thinking seriously about the significance of memory.
As a starting point, I looked up “memory”. It is, says a source, “the ability to keep a mental record of earlier experiences. Basically, memory is learning. For example, a person may learn to ride a bicycle. Or he may learn the names of all the presidents of the United States”.
The source mentioned above distinguishes between unusual and normal memory. Persons who have excellent memories for detail may actually “see” the material when they remember it. This, says the source, “is known as eidetic imagery”. The source continues: “Many persons with eidetic imagery can tell the exact position of a statement on a textbook page. They can glance at an object for only a second or two, and then give a complete description of it based on their image.”
A reliable memory is important to success in life, and people have spent much time finding ways of improving memory, for instance, by using formal or mechanical methods to make remembering easy, or by using various tricks of association, or by reciting rhymes. Almost everyone remembers how many days there are in each month by repeating the jingle “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November…”
The definitions of “memory” thus far focus on memorisation. While memorisation is not what whole learning is about, nevertheless it is important. Children should memorise the times tables, otherwise they will not be able to do simple arithmetic. Similarly, they should be taught to memorise the alphabet.
I remember vividly two instances from my lecturing days. One student had to consult a dictionary, and the other a telephone directory. Neither of these students could perform what, to readers, might appear a simple exercise because they simply did not know the alphabet – most likely because of inadequate training.
Then there is the case of a young man, Mohammed Sheik (Die Burger, September 9), who has memorised the entire Holy Qur’an, and who will shortly participate in a competition in Mecca. According to Die Burger, for Sheik, this exercise of memorisation is not merely a technical matter; it is also deeply spiritual.
Philosophers before and after Plato have thought about memory. Plato’s theory of anamnesis, which is the idea of recalling things past, considers that there is nothing new for one to know, since everything has been “in your mind” always, and now they are just being called up. This is technical thinking about memory, however.
My concern with memory is the emotional, fully human concern, involving one’s whole being. Cesare Pavese and Oscar Wilde offer insightful thoughts on memory. According to Pavese in The Burning Brand, “We do not remember days, we remember moments”. For Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”
Memory, for me, is the remembrance of a past of joyful happenings, but also of sad or tragic happenings, which have little or nothing to do with remembering how to pedal a bicycle, or reciting the names of presidents.
To illustrate: My grandparents, and here I think particularly of my paternal grandmother after whom I am named – my parents and a brother all died years ago – persons I have lived with as closely as possible, shared ups and downs, the loves and every other emotion of life, the tears, the laughter. The longing after that time remains, now, and all that brings it back is memory.
My school and university days are treasured times of the past, happenings in the classroom, teachers, now dead, whom you liked, others you did not, and so on, and all of this can be brought back only by memory. For this is certain: most of us want to remember the good that befell us in the past, and would like it to be continually with us still, which is, in the run-up of time, impossible.
The power of memory resides with us. On the one hand, the thought is awe-inspiring; on the other hand it is simply our human condition. In one of his later Counterpoints, Adam presented some work of modern Japanese poets, amongst them Ryūrdui Tamura, who says memory “is the only way to bring back the dead to life”, which means also to bring back anything which has happened even long ago. It is no real return of things, of course, only a comfort and a solace for the one who remembers and recalls.
One may ask: How long ago is “long ago”? I cannot think that I will be remembered 500 years from now, unlike Jesus and the holy Prophet Muhammad who have now been remembered for centuries. And this brings to mind the question of memory of persons and happenings in the immediate past, and memory of persons and happenings of the distant past.
The matter of loss of memory must also be mentioned. Sometimes we cannot remember the name of someone we know quite well. This is a common experiece. Of course, shortly afterwards, the name might crop up. A psychologist may explain that you may have purposely wanted to forget the person’s name. This, the psychologist might say, is “motivated” forgetting. A far more serious instance of loss of memory is found with sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a truly tragic instance of loss of memory. The person suffering from the condition is unaware of it. The persons close to him or her experience extreme pain when their loved does not know who they are.
In my previous Counterpoint, I engaged with the topic of pain, especially mental or emotional pain. Of course, emotional pain is not brought on solely through the death of a loved one. In response to my article on pain, Stan Sandler (Cape Times, September 5) notes how a deep engagement with the works of “literary greats” such as Shakespeare, WH Auden and Philip Larkin have helped persons such as Stephen Fry, Melvyn Bragg and Ian McKellen to face their emotional pain and turn it into what I have called a constructive force.
There are also other ways of addressing one’s pain. The late poet TT Cloete’s wife pre-deceased him by about 10 years. Since her death, he wrote letters to her almost every day. These letters were published about two years before TT’s death. Then, of course, one might also address one’s pain through talking about it, as did Fry, Bragg and McKellen.
Memory can assist one to turn one’s pain into a constructive force. It is, of course, a two-edged sword: on the one hand it can fill one with beautiful feelings, but, on the other hand, it can fill one with sadness if one thinks about the loss about which you have this memory. But one must not suppress memory even though it might bring sadness. One needs to turn memory also into a positive force, and perhaps couple this with writing about your memories, as did TT Cloete.
A thought: Without memory, there could be no celebrations, such as that of Eid-ul-Adha, or of birthdays.
A final, lovely memory, for now, about a birthday. In our family, it has always been important to remember birthdays. One year, Adam forgot my birthday. When we arrived at my sister’s house in the late afternoon to fetch my mother, who then lived with us, everyone started congratulating me on my birthday. Adam went as white as a sheet when he realised his omission. We laughed about it afterwards when I told him how pale he had become!